Tank Tuesday: Feeding Time at Kyoto Aquarium

One of my first stops in Japan last summer was the Kyoto Aquarium. (This might surprise some people, but those who know me also know that I’m a sucker for well-kept aquariums and exotic fish.)

Like many large aquariums around the world, Kyoto features an enormous “deep sea” exhibit featuring many species of fish, including sharks and rays, along with sea turtles, corals, and invertebrate life.

We arrived at feeding time, and I loved snapping shots of the diver feeding the various species – none of whom seemed frightened by his presence.


Today, I’m sharing three of my favorite shots from the “early feeding,” when the schools of smaller fish swarmed in to take advantage of the time between the diver’s appearance and the arrival of the slower, but larger, sharks and rays:


While I love to watch aquatic species moving around at any time, I enjoy watching the interactions between fish and scuba divers (in part because I love to dive myself), and it was fun to have the chance to photograph the aquarium with a diver in the tanks.


Do you scuba dive? Do you like to visit aquariums when you travel? 


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A Visit to Kyoto’s Myomanji (Part 1)

During my research trip to Japan last summer I visited Kyoto Seika University, an art college in the northern part of Kyoto (most of us would consider it “just north of Kyoto” but given Japanese city lines, it’s technically within the boundaries of Kyoto-shi). When I arrived in Japan, my son had just completed a 15-week study abroad program at Kyoto Seika, and wanted to show me both the school and some of his favorite nearby sites.


One of the places he wanted to visit was “this really cool little temple and monastery” about a fifteen-minute walk from the university campus. He said “it’s not really crowded, or famous, but it’s special to me”–and given my love for Japanese shrine and temple architecture, I gladly went along.


The temple measures about the size of a small city block, and has no English-language signage. The entrance identifies it as “Myotzan Myomanji” – a name that initially rang no bells for me. (Pun intended.)

On first impression, Myomanji is a lovely, quiet temple approached along a wide stone bridge that spans an enormous, decorative koi pond:


Directly inside the gates, I noticed a beautiful–and very large–bronze bell, which reminded me of the famous bell in a Japanese Noh play called Dōjōji.


The bell itself is almost ten feet high.

In the play, a monk named Anchin goes on a pilgrimage and meets an innkeeper’s daughter, Kiyohime, who falls in love with him. Although Anchin promises to marry the girl, he tricks her and returns to his monastery via a different route. Enraged, the girl transforms herself into a giant snake, and pursues Anchin to the temple, where he has hidden himself inside the temple’s giant bronze bell. Kiyohime wraps her body around the bell, and the scorching heat of her anger burns Anchin to death inside the bell – after which, Kiyohime flung herself into a nearby river and drowned…and her spirit possessed the bell. In the final act of the play, the monks exorcise Kiyohime’s spirit from the bell, restoring order to the temple.


Remember this…it’s going to be relevant in Thursday’s post . . .

Inside the temple grounds, a large, Indian-style stupa rose up near the center of the temple, directly in front of the worship hall.


The stupa seemed out of place in a Japanese temple, and also strangely familiar, though I didn’t place it immediately. In fact, it was weeks later that I remembered where I’d seen it: the stupa is a replica of the one a Bodh Gaya (in India) where Buddha originally attained enlightenment.


After paying respects before the altar, my son and I paid the small admission fee (300 yen – about $3) that allowed us to tour the monastery, including the abbott’s hall (filled with art) and the lovely monastery garden, called Yukinoniwa.

(This is where I’d normally put a photo of Yukinoniwa; however, it felt like a very sacred space, and I respected it far too much to take any photographs.)

While we sat and appreciated the garden (and waited out a light summer rain that started falling while we toured the monastery) one of the monks came running through the hall with a paper in his hand. This was rare, and unusual, because most of the Buddhist monks I saw in Japan moved peacefully about their business. When he saw us, the monk lit up with delight, bowed, and presented the paper to my son.

But to find out what mystery the paper held, and how it relates to the Myomanji bell, you’ll have to return for Thursday’s post!

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A Visit to the Audubon Aquarium

New Orleans is home to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and since I love aquariums, I decided to pay this one a visit during my final afternoon in New Orleans (I’m here attending Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, which ended Sunday.)

One thing that sets the Audobon Aquarium apart is its emphasis on freshwater species, and species native to North and South America. The exhibits include a display of plants that grow in the Amazon rain forest …


Several oceanic tanks featuring sharks, deep-sea fish (like the alligator gar), and rays. Fortunately, I arrived at ray-feeding time!


A special section with Louisiana-themed exhibits even includes a tasty local favorite…the crawfish.


The seahorse exhibit was not as large as some I’ve seen around the world, but the seahorse tanks were beautifully kept and reproduced habitats the seahorses seemed to enjoy and appreciate. All of the seahorse specimens looked healthy and happy, from the darling little Lined Seahorses (the same species I keep at home)


To the giant potbelly seahorses – they’re not pregnant, despite those rounded bellies!


And the “Yellow Seahorses,” Hippocampus kuda:


Outside the giant “deep sea” tank, displays held two different diving suits, one from the early 20th century,


and the other a modern suit that allows a diver to work at depths of up to 2,000 feet.


Things have certainly changed since deep sea diving was in its infancy!

While watching the deep sea fish swim past, I had a lucky encounter with the giant sea turtle.


…and as always, I loved to watch the jellies swimming peacefully in their kreisel-tank homes.


However, my favorite exhibit — which I returned to more than once — featured a rare white alligator. The first time I passed by, the aquarium was busy and he seemed content to sit on the bottom, watching the people pass.


When I returned a few minutes later, things had slowed down, and he swam to the surface to get a better look at me. The look in his eyes made me grateful for the glass between us:


But, despite the visceral reaction his appraising look caused in me, I think he’s a magnificent, powerful creature, and I spent a long time watching him. I’d never seen an alligator as active as he was this afternoon, and he made me glad I chose the aquarium for last afternoon in New Orleans.

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BookFace Friday!

I’m currently in New Orleans for Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention) and having a great time creating #BookfaceFriday images with the fantastic cover of The Ninja’s Daughter.


Half a face on a cover offers some fun photo-ops, as you can see! Here’s my entry…


And one from fellow Seventh Street Books author James W. Ziskin, author of the fantastic Ellie Stone novels…


And Gigi Pandian, author of The Accidental Alchemist mystery series (her alchemist, Zoe Faust, and the living gargoyle Dorian are one of my favorite mystery-solving duos) - 


Tune in later this afternoon (and over the weekend) because I’ll be posting more bookface photos as I gather them at the conference!

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Avoiding Common Freelance Writing Scams*

Scammers and the unscrupulous flourish where dreams and business intersect, and writing is no exception. Many authors take on freelance writing opportunities to supplement longer-format writing.

Here are some tips for avoiding some of the common writing-related scams and “opportunities” that cost you more than they benefit:

1. When freelancing or writing for third-party publications, always get a written contract BEFORE you write the piece.

Many times, writers agree to work “on a handshake,” only to discover that the deal terms were not what they expected. Make sure you understand the terms, and have a written agreement (preferably a real contract, but even terms of use will do) so everyone is clear on the terms and conditions of employment.

Note: Evaluate the terms of your contract carefully, and get professional guidance if there’s anything you don’t understand. Use business judgment when evaluating freelance opportunities. Don’t sell yourself–or your work–more cheaply than you deserve.

2. When writing for pay on freelance assignments, get at least half of the money up front.

This one is fairly self-explanatory: if you get paid up front, it’s harder for someone to get away without paying for your work.

3. Never, ever, cash checks on behalf of a client or employer.

A popular freelance scam involves sending the writer a check for more than the employer owes. The employer asks the author to cash the check & return the overage…but the check was never good in the first place, leaving the author holding the bag (and paying for the privilege).

If you receive a check for more than you’re owed, ask the publisher/employer to write you a new one. You are not their bank.

4. Keep the copyrights in your work – unless you knew and agreed in advance (and in writing) to creating “works for hire.”

Most of the time, freelance authors should retain copyright in the works they create for publication. Keeping the copyright enables the freelancer to “recycle” articles (or parts of them) and keep the income cycle rolling.

However, sometimes the circumstances (topic, fee, or other business reasons) justify working on a “work for hire” basis. Be aware: when you write a “work for hire,” the copyright belongs to the person who hired you (not to you). If asked to write a work for hire, evaluate the circumstances and make a reasoned business decision. It’s not an automatic “yes” or “no.”

5. Reputable freelance clients and publishers don’t charge reading or submission fees (for articles or queries).

Submit queries and articles only to markets that do not charge fees for the “privilege” of evaluating your work.

6. Evaluate the potential employer BEFORE you submit your work.

Research the market online, or in industry guides like Writer’s Digest. Talk to experienced freelancers about how they find employment, and seek recommendations when you can.

Adhering to these tips can’t guarantee that you will never fall prey to a scam or an unscrupulous employer, but they will help you stay alert and protect your rights.

Have other freelancing tips, or things that have worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*Today’s post is a re-post from 2015, because I’m traveling to Bouchercon in New Orleans. I’ll be back with new content next Wednesday at noon Pacific!

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The Dry Waterfall at Kyoto’s Tenryu-ji

During my recent trip to Japan, I visited Tenryuji, a Zen temple and monastery in the mountains northwest of Kyoto.

The temple is famous not only for the “heavenly dragon” (Tenryu) painted on the ceiling of its worship hall, but also for its lovely botanical gardens and Zen landscape.

The primary garden at Tenryuji was designed by Muso Soseki (1275-1351, also called Muso Kokushi), a follower of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. His major contributions to Zen garden design and landscaping include the “dry waterfall”–a stone arrangement designed to mimic the appearance of water without the use of any actual water in the element.

0613 Dry Waterfall


Dry waterfalls often appear in “dry gardens”–Zen landscapes consisting entirely of rocks and sand or incorporating rocks and sand with plants and floral elements. However, at Tenryuji, the dry waterfall sits adjacent to a pond, creating a contrast between the illusion of water, represented by stones, and actual water. 

One part of Zen meditation involves “seeing” negative spaces–the things that are not present in the landscape. Observing the dry waterfall enables the viewer to contemplate the sound and movement of a waterfall in the mind, without the distraction of “real” water moving in the field of view.

Placing a dry waterfall near a pool of clear, unmoving water also creates a contrast between the two “forms” of non-moving water (the stones, representing water, and the real water in the pond beneath them). 

1613 Tenryuji Waterfall

Although I’m not a practitioner, I appreciate the meditative elements of Zen Buddhist culture, and love the beautiful, peaceful landscaping elements found in Zen gardens. They’re lovely to look at, and splendid places to sit and meditate, pray, or think, regardless of a person’s personal beliefs. Zen gardens offer a unique, relaxing, and lovely opportunity to see and connect with nature–and in that, Tenryuji did not disappoint!

Have you ever seen a dry waterfall? What you enjoy most about Zen gardens? 

*This is a re-post of an earlier post, because I’m traveling this week for Bouchercon.*


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Creating a Sleuth Your Readers Will Love

Sherlock Holmes. Jane Marple. Jack Reacher.

Three famous names with something important in common … aside from the fact that each solves crimes in mystery or thriller novels.

What is this common element? Readers love them.

The key to writing successful mysteries and thrillers doesn’t lie in careful plotting, clever crimes, or sneaky suspects. The heart of these stories beats in the chest of the sleuth.
Everyone enjoys a puzzle, and a tightly-woven plot is important, but readers return to a mystery (or thriller) series because they want to spend more time with a favorite hero(ine). Solving the puzzle is much more fun when you “ride along” with a friend, and a well-written sleuth is a reader’s friend indeed.

Before you sit down to commit—and solve—the initial crime in your manuscript, hunt down a compelling hero (or heroine) your readers will remember long after they turn the final page.

But how to create a successful sleuth? 

Let’s look at a few of the characteristics that many successful fictional sleuths (and thriller heroes) have in common:

1. Unusual Occupations.

Mystery and thriller shelves are filled with police and FBI agents doing their best to catch the killer and save the world. But with so many “standard” crime solvers already in circulation, sometimes readers like to see a different kind of sleuth.

Brother Cadfael is a monk. Miss Marple, a widow. My detective, Hiro Hattori, is a master ninja.

Giving your hero an unusual occupation opens new worlds for the reader and offers the writer a different range of crime-solving skills to utilize.

2. Battle Scars.

In his popular screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder recommends giving every character “a limp and an eyepatch” to distinguish him (or her) from other characters in the scene. That applies to novels, too; a good detective always has an unusual “tell.”

The characteristic can relate to physical appearance or you can give her a definitive tic or reaction that sets her apart. My detective, Hiro Hattori, raises an eyebrow for ironic effect. In addition to adding uniqueness, these characteristics offer effective shorthand for a character’s mood or thought.
3. A Trunk Full of Baggage.

Jack Reacher has a shadowed past, and lives like he’s on the run. Miss Marple never married, and she’s crotchety as the day is long.

Nobody’s perfect, including your hero. Everyone has experienced disappointment, injury, and broken dreams . . . your sleuth should too. Whether the suffering happens onstage or off is up to you. But readers respond to damaged heroes, and watching a character overcome her own problems to help someone else is compelling on many levels.

4. Keep the Skeletons IN the Closet (Mostly).

Good detectives or thriller heroes feel like real people, which means the writer needs to create an extensive and detailed backstory for the character.

But readers hate backstory.

Flights of memory, or fancy, interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract from the sleuth’s objective: solving the crime. The answer? Treat your detective’s backstory like a good mystery: drop some clues, but don’t reveal the entire thing.

By keeping your hero’s skeletons IN the closet, except for occasional peeks, you’ll keep your readers engaged, intrigued, and eager for the next reveal.

5. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone … Take This.

Most sleuths have a sidekick, a pet, or both, and they serve an important purpose. Pets and sidekicks humanize the hero(ine) and draw the reader closer. Incorporating one, or both, allows the writer to bring the reader right into the story, alongside the sleuth, and to see the sleuth behaving like a human being as well as a hero.

You don’t have to integrate all of these tips to create a fantastic, compelling sleuth. Select the ones that work for you, and ignore the ones that don’t. Even if you integrate just one or two, you’ll find your hero growing more intriguing, to you as well as your readers.

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Understanding “Chibi” With Hiro & Father Mateo

As used in anime and manga culture, “chibi” (ちび / チビ) refers to overly-cute or child-like drawings of characters from anime, manga, or other areas of popular culture. 

Chibi are often characterized by oversized heads, childlike features, and larger-than-normal eyes (though the latter is often true of anime styles generally, and is not unique to chibi).

16I05 Hiro and Father Mateo

Many Westerners, especially those who don’t read anime or manga (Japanese comics/graphic novels), may have trouble recognizing chibi–or telling them apart from other forms of anime and manga art–despite their growing popularity in the United States. Fortunately, I was able to commission some examples.

The protagonist of my mystery novels is shinobi detective Hiro Hattori–a 25 year-old assassin and member of the Iga ninja clan. Although my novels are written for adults, and not for children, Hiro drawn in the chibi style looks more like a child than the seasoned killer he actually is:

16I05 Hiro Chibi

Hiro’s partner in crime-solving, Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, is slightly older than Hiro, but looks similarly young in chibi form:

16I05 Father Mateo

In both forms, however, Father Mateo remains allergic to Hiro’s cat.

These chibis were drawn by Warbabymoon (aka Taylor Hatake) – and you can see more of her art and other commissions on her DeviantArt page, here. I appreciate her drawing these for me, so I could demonstrate the chibi style here on the blog.

Manga and anime (Japanese animation) are important parts of modern Japanese culture; a large percentage of the Japanese population read manga (and watch anime films), and the stories and images they contain are far more diverse and wide-ranging than Western “comics.” Offerings range from fantasy and science fiction to historical, romantic, and even erotic fiction. Their topics and tones run the gamut from heavily serious to slapstick humor (and everything in between).

Although some Western readers think it strange to consider that “comics” have such widespread popularity in Japan, anime and manga encompass far more than merely “comic books.” Graphic novels are deeply embedded in Japanese culture – and as a writer, I think it’s a wonderful thing. The fusion of story, words, and art gives storytellers a dynamic, flexible platform – I’m glad to see them growing in popularity in the United States, and hope the trend continues.

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Negotiate Like a Pro (Part 3): The Negotiation

Welcome back to the negotiation mini-series!

Last week we took a look at how to create a pre-negotiation plan. To re-cap:

– Read the contract; make a list of points you’d like to change.

– Prioritize your list into deal breakers, important points, and “things to ask for.”

– Consider the publisher’s potential responses to your requests.

– Adjust your list, and strategy, to address potential publisher concerns.

Now, let’s look at tips for increasing your chances of success in an actual publishing contract negotiation*:

Publishers, like flies, prefer honey to vinegar: Be Polite.

No matter how the negotiation opens, proceeds, or finishes, you must remain professional throughout the process. Negotiations may occur by phone or by email. Regardless of method, take the time to phrase your comments in a polite and respectful manner.

Not all publishers (or their lawyers) treat authors (or agents, or anyone) with respect. That doesn’t excuse your rudeness in return. It isn’t easy to keep your temper and stay polite when the other side is hostile, condescending, or both. However, it’s the only way to get the best possible deal.

2. Pay attention to the publisher’s negotiating strategy—it’s an indicator of your future relationship.

A publisher or editor who condescends or ignores your concerns during negotiations probably won’t become more attentive and engaged when the contract is signed. On the other hand, a publisher who listens – even if the answer is no – is offering a positive sign about your future relationship.

Do not expect the publisher to grant everything you ask for. However, it’s reasonable to expect them not to insult you in the process.

One caveat: Sometimes a publisher’s attorney handles the negotiations on behalf of the acquiring editor, and the lawyer’s tactics may not reflect the editor’s normal behavior. In other words: don’t nuke a deal because the lawyer lacked appropriate social skills. (Far too many of us fall short when it comes to social niceties.)

3. When negotiating by email, remember that writing has trouble conveying tone—on your side or the publisher’s.

Text—especially simple, business-related text—can often convey a “shadow-tone” contrary to the writer’s intentions. When sending and receiving email, phrase your own words carefully and interpret the publisher’s responses generously with regard to tone. For example: “We’ve always done it this way” could be a polite explanation…or a hostile argument-ender; you can’t tell which it is from the words alone.

Proofread all negotiation emails before you hit “send,” not only for content and typographical errors but also for tone. When reading the publisher’s responses, give the benefit of the doubt with regard to tone whenever possible—and remember: don’t lose your temper, no matter what.

4. Negotiate your way through the contract paragraph by paragraph, rather than jumping around in the text.

Shortly before the negotiation, re-order your list of negotiating points to match the paragraph numbers in the contract. During negotiation, address each point as you come to it in the document. This ensures that every important point is discussed—if you work out of order, things often get missed or fall through the cracks.

5. Think on your feet—and outside the box.

If the publisher refuses your first suggestion for a contract amendment, quick thinking may help you to respond with a workable compromise.

Here’s an example: You ask to keep your translation rights. The editor refuses, saying the publishing house wants foreign language rights as part of the contract. “All right,” you say, “would you be willing to language that grants them to you for the first two years after publication, but lets me revert any unused foreign language rights at the end of that period?” Many publishers will consider—and agree to—this language.

6. Plan for more than one round of negotiations.

Sometimes, your requested changes may require permission (or consideration) by someone other than the acquiring editor. Don’t get upset if the editor tells you (s)he has to consider your request, or discuss it with the company lawyers. 

Negotiations can resolve all issues in a single shot, but far more often a publishing contract results from multiple rounds of negotiation over several weeks (or months).

When it comes to contracts, patience is indeed a virtue.

*Note: Authors often have more success in negotiations when assisted by a literary agent or publishing lawyer. I recommend that authors obtain professional contract review and assistance whenever possible. However, I’m offering these tips in recognition of the fact that such assistance isn’t always possible.

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Enterprise Bridge Panels – Up Close and Personal

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I visited the Star Trek exhibit at Seattle’s EMP (Experience Music Project) museum over the weekend – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the more interesting exhibits I didn’t cover in yesterday’s post was a set of original bridge panels from the original (1960′s) Star Trek TV series.

16H28 Bridge Panels

All those futuristic-looking panels were actually composed of simple plastic, with translucent bits and buttons glued on to create the glimmering lights.

16H28 Bridge Panels 2

One thing that really stood out to me, seeing them in person: the set creators didn’t even bother to glue the pieces in a way that avoided smearing, or to keep the glue from showing on the finished pieces. TV cameras filmed with low enough resolution and detail that it didn’t matter, because the smears of glue would never show on-screen. 

An interesting reality-check for those of us who dreamed of one day sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise, watching the computer do its job! 

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